Psychology Helped Create Our Moral Malaise. It Can Also Help Cure It

December 22, 2017 | Paul Vitz
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To Paul Vitz, the widespread revelations of powerful men committing sexual offenses against women are but a symptom of a larger crisis of morality, which modern psychological theories played a part in bringing about. But now, he writes, newer psychological research is affirming age-old notions of virtue:

The problem began in the early 1950s, when the first signs of the coming sexual revolution emerged. After the Great Depression and World War II, the country turned toward prosperity and consumerism. At that time, psychological problems were commonly interpreted as arising from sexual repression and moral prudishness. The understanding of personal problems as caused by moral failings or weak character was on the way out. Among the signs of this change were the Kinsey reports, Playboy magazine, and the rise of advice columns offering psychological answers.

Already in the 1950s, and more so in the 1960s, psychologists emphasized “self-actualization,” where the self—presumed to be all good—should break from all inhibitions and choose its own values and way of life. The goal was to be without restrictions, and even without interpersonal commitments. . . .

Fortunately, since its heady days in the 1960s and 1970s, psychology has become wiser. Newer theories have emphasized strong and supportive interpersonal relationships throughout life as necessary for psychological health. Even the importance of forgiveness has been introduced into psychology, de-emphasizing the isolated autonomous person. Still more significantly, the field of psychology has discovered—really, re-discovered—the importance of virtues and character strengths to a flourishing life. . . . There is now good evidence that the character strength of self-control, or self-regulation, . . . is more important than IQ as a predictor of academic performance. Indeed, self-control has been found to be a long-term predictor of what is termed “a flourishing life.”

Our culture needs to recognize again what we once knew, an insight that is found in all the world’s major cultures: that the good man and the good woman are persons of good character. For men especially, this means regaining control over their sexuality and aggressiveness. And this time around, psychology can probably be of help.

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